Tag Archives: history

Haunting Iceland

This image from North Iceland haunts me. This was once a prosperous farm, as the driftwood fence shows. In a country without wood, to have rights to pick up Siberian wood from the beach was enough to make a farm pay. Now they’re inexpensive  replacements  for more expensive metal posts, and not a cash item.

Speaking of economy, look at the tun, or house field in the centre of the image. It would have been manured with the manure from the winter sheep barn… just as far as a man could carry it with his strength. The point is, that was economy: this concentration of the energy of the land in such a way that it gave forth more richness in the year to come. This principle was applied after the Second World War, when the country embraced foreign modernity to maintain the old economy. In this case, the fuel tank, and a tractor that went with it, looked like a path to a bright future. Maybe it was for Reykjavik, but after 1,000 years no one lives here anymore. It’s still farmed, as a hayfield. The main field, the tun so to speak, is up against the ridge on the upper right of the image, bright green and fertilized with nitrogen fertilizer: an industrial product, that must be paid for with cash the land can barely spare. That’s where the edge of maintaining Iceland by bringing in foreign technology has lead now. Without it, there’d be no economy, yet if it had always been this way, there’d be no Iceland. This has always been Iceland’s bind. Gunnar Gunnarsons’s attempt to solve it by bringing modern German farming to the Fljótsdalur in 1939 lasted only a couple years, before he had to give it up. In fact, this might just be a universal human bind: one looks for permanency and must accept transience, yet the dream of permanency continues to exert its pull.

What it says is that we are haunted by the world as much as we haunt it.

At Dawn, Iceland is Four Worlds at Once

At first, dawn is pure light.

þingvellavatn

Then it reveals another world.

Then it turns blue. The other world is still there, but white now.

Then there are colours, and mountains, as the two worlds join.

When you count the houses built at þingvellir each time Iceland enacts a new constitution, that’s three worlds. Well, four if you count the ice.

Iceland’s Stones of History

It is the horizon that marks the way across Iceland. It is there, where soft rock broken apart by fast-moving glaciers shows itself against the low, high-latitude snow, that one sees the difference between the impossible jumble of the near and the impossible formlessness of the distant.

It is the most basic cultural act to set up a human marker in that spot, in the most recognizable shape: a human guide. The jumble and the white-out become intimately more human, as a deep, psychological break between darkness and light. It clears the mind …

… and you find the way, exactly at the point, the ridges, where the wind blows the snow away. For most of Iceland’s history, these cairns were the difference between life and death as one travelled across country. Here at Litlafoss, it guides herdsmen out of the canyon pastures and away from the cliff where the raven nests and waits for you to slip and break your head. You can see some of these cairns on the left of the image below, although the one above was on the right and out of the image.

For Icelanders, these cairns are some of the deepest history in the land, and one of the historical markers of the creation of Icelandic culture.

They are to be approached with the reverence with which one approaches the caves at Lascaux or the Sphinx, and so are the glacial rubble fields that inspired them. Walk lightly in Iceland. Nature here is historical space.

You pass through history to get to the falls.

Litlafoss

To find the falls, you must go deep into the earth.

Gunnar Weaves the World with the Stony Face of Traditional Icelandic Verse

In the speech he read throughout the Third Reich in the spring of 1940, “Our Land” Gunnar spoke of how Icelandic rock rose in the chain-linked stanzas of traditional Icelandic verse. Here’s the gorge outside his house.

At its foot lies Melárett, the fold that was the largest public building in Iceland in his time, used to gather flocks in winter and separate them out, farm by farm: a place for people to work in unison, come together, and then separate by choice into their own private affairs.

I’m sure the two concepts were intimately linked in series in his mind. Hitler didn’t enjoy the suggestion, by the way.

100 Years of Trolls

When you’re in Iceland, it’s good to get off the beaten track. No tour guide will lead you to this troll at Skriðuklaustur.

Or this one. If people laugh about your troll finds, does that really matter?

You might even find an entire troll narrative. What does it matter if there are no physical entities called trolls?

You can find pictures of those things in bookshops, for children, without an explanation of the politics behind them. What is that politics? Guess.

Contemporary ecology is based on stories of trolls from Norway in the 1920s. I think it’s possible that ecology in the 2120s will be based on stories of trolls found today.